Carrying Capacity

and Limiting Factors
How many individuals can a particular ecosystem [or planet, for example], indefinitely support over
a long period of time without suffering severe or irreparable damage? To scientists, the answer to
such a question constitutes the system's carrying capacity. Since ecosystems are finite in their size
and resources, each has an upper limit to the population that it can support while continuing to provide
food, resources, accommodate wastes, resist damage, maintain, perpetuate, and repair itself, and also
provide the assorted ecological services that allow a given population to exist
(Such as, for example, each day’s production and restoration of most of the molecular O2 that we and most other
animals inhale every few seconds, and pollination, and helping produce rainfall by the process of transpiration).

In 1986 Garrett Hardin likened carrying capacity to an “engineer's…estimate of the carrying capacity
of a bridge." To expand on his observation, suppose that we ask: Why do finite vehicles, such as
aircraft and elevators, for example, have "carrying capacities" that constitute limits to the numbers of
passengers that they can safely accommodate, and/or to the weight, damages, impacts, eradications,
and wastes that they can safely accommodate? If one is about to board an elevator, for example, that
can safely accommodate 18 passengers and 83, 247, or 978 passengers begin to squeeze aboard, it is
easy to understand that the weight and stresses of excessive loading invite and virtually ensure failures
in one or more components, triggering the collapse of the entire system and the destruction of both
the vehicle itself and its passengers.
A similar unsettling scenario can be envisioned if one imagines boarding an airplane of finite size, only to no-
tice that a line of more and more and more persons continue to endlessly board the aircraft in which we and
our families are seated. A matter that suddenly becomes increasingly crucial is the prospect of more and more
and more persons endlessly boarding an elevator or aircraft of limited size – a scenario which, in real-world
systems, virtually guarantees calamitous transgressions of one, multiple, or many limits, tipping points, and
systems thresholds.

Therefore, when engineers or scientists warn of carrying capacities, overshoot, thresholds, tipping
points and limits, which, if exceeded, invite potentially-calamitous systems-wide failures, we can
appreciate the importance of serious attention to their warnings, concerns, and assessments.

As a thought experiment, then, try to imagine a team of astronauts in a space vehicle if they were to
cannibalize 95% of their guidance and propulsion systems, annihilate 93% of their heat shields,
destroy 87% of their CO2 scrubbers, degrade 77% of their computer codes, and eviscerate the other
life-support systems of their spacecraft? Or, in a similar way, envision our planet as a global bus. If
a bus has enough seats for fifty passengers, we would all agree that we could crowd a few extra
persons on board in an emergency. But how many extras could the vehicle accommodate? What if
491 passengers climb aboard, or 937, or 7428?
To further extend these insights, suppose that the owner of a new and pristine automobile begins to
systematically degrade its multiple operating systems, degrading 50% of its steering system, 75% of
its tires, and then destroying its carburetor, most of its spark plugs, half of its axles and brake shoes,
and 93% of its ignition and electrical systems, while simultaneously pouring ever more contaminants
each day into its gasoline, oil, radiator, battery, transmission fluid, and brake fluid. And then suppose
that this individual can't understand why his automobile, which "has always worked in the past,"
doesn't function anymore. Not so bright, is he?

Do we know anyone who seems to treat the only planetary life-support
machinery so far known to exist anywhere in the universe in a similar way?
As another thought experiment, envision a hospital that decides to replace existing treatments with a
less-expensive new policy whose goal is to simply “save a representative sampling” of the various
cells, tissues, and organ systems of their patients? They argue that their innovative new policy will
be far less expensive by simply trying to protect or save approximately 10% of bone, blood, muscle,
heart, brain, endocrine, connective tissues, elbow joints, and some parts of the eyelids, bowels and
kidneys of their patients. They point out that not only would such a representative 10% sampling
approach save the hospital a lot of money, but would also help preserve and conserve needed samples
and parts of most organs and systems for their families and later studies. Clearly, of course, saving
tiny samplings of each patient’s component cells and tissues offers no assurance whatsoever that the
patient themselves as living and functioning entities will continue to survive, so that the obvious flaw
in the imagined policy is that it allocates zero thought or consideration to the implications for the sur-
vival of the complex equilibrial living entity itself and does not even contemplate the existence of
such things as whole-systems and collapse outcomes.

How important is this? It is not an exact analogy, of course, but think of the moist tropical forests and
the microscopic phytoplankton in the surface layers of the sea functioning as the “lungs of the world”
because they provide us (each day) with most of the oxygen that we breathe. If we were to save 10%
of a person’s lung tissues and destroy the remaining 90%, could we reasonably expect the person to
even survive, much less to continue to function normally?

Why then, should we suppose that Earth’s natural systems and environmental machinery are invul-
nerable? Is saving one lung and one kidney enough? One lung would amount to 50% and one kidney
is 50%. Is that sufficient to maintain even a suboptimal level of physiological function? Or does a
50% loss of each system constitute a new and highly precarious condition (or even a 3% loss of each
system)? Is it sufficient if we save some of the endocrine glands? If a person loses one lung and one
kidney and half of their endocrine glands, what happens to their overall prognosis? It would appear
that we need to save at least fifty percent of Earth’s natural and biospheric systems – and to the extent
that the above analogies hold that fifty percent may not be enough.

Thus, humanity’s currently-massive population size and growth, eradications, societal wastes, and
population momentum confront Earth’s planetary life-support machinery (its carrying capacity for a
modern industrialized humanity) with a crisis that is unfolding RIGHT NOW- at this very moment and
in THIS decade, in the lifetimes of sons, daughters, or grandchildren, and of young people living today
– and their generation has a right to know the demographic, carrying capacity, and population-envir-
onment data and implications set forth in this and related PowerPoints and PDFs.

So far, then, we have seen examples such as bridges, aircraft, and elevators that have carrying capa-
cities which are finite limits to the sheer numbers, impacts, weight, damage, wastes, destruction,
and/or eradications that such entities can safely accommodate without systems failures and/or whole-
system calamities (such as an elevator with a capacity for 18 passengers as 38, 70, 788, or 3088
persons attempt to squeeze aboard as an invitation to systems-failures calamities for both the func-
tioning vehicle and its occupants). Similarly, we envisioned an airplane able to safely accommodate
130 passengers as lines of 810 or 1678 or 2842 persons endlessly boarded one after another, per-
mitting us to appreciate why carrying capacity warnings enunciated by scientists and engineers are
not matters to be ignored or taken lightly as humankind’s rapidly and ever-increasing worldwide
numbers OVERSHOOT the thresholds, limits, and impacts that Earth’s planetary life-support
machinery can sustainably tolerate and support..

Only very foolish persons (or selfish economic interests perhaps)
would wantonly ignore such concepts, warnings, and data.
As another thought experiment, envision a hospital that decides to treat the bodies of its patients in a
similar manner by initiating policies intended to save a “representative sampling” of the cells, tissues,
The mostandimportant reason
organ systems forpatients?
of their understanding planetary
They argue that due tocarrying capacity,
the expense of theirlimits, systems
programs, thresholds,
their inno-
vative new policy will reduce costs while simultaneously attempting to save
and tipping points is underscored by the graph below which depicts humankind’s worldwide representative 10% sam-population
history ples
fromof each patient’s tissues such as bone, blood, muscle, heart, brain, endocrine, connective tissues,
circa 8000 BC to the present with projections to 2100. It should be especially disquieting to
elbow joints, and some parts of the eyelids, bowels and kidneys.
Theynotice that
point out thatour
notgraph exhibits
only would suchan
an extreme and the
approach save quite-pronounced J-curve.
hospital a lot of money and inconven-
A ience, but that because it is so economically-compelling, it can help ensure that representative 10%
samples of each patient’s component parts can remain available for their families and future gener-
ations. Before our present graph (shown unfolding
Clearly, saving tiny samples of each patient’s component cells andthe twooffers
tissues mostnofamous
what- in all of
soever that the patient themselves as living and functioningprevious human
entities will continuehistory were
to survive, so two
that atomic
the obvious flaw in the imagined policy is that it allocates detonations
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theimplications for theWar II at
close of World
The most important aaaaaafunctional survival of the complex equilibrial living entity
Hiroshima and Nagasaki. itself and does
not even contemplate the existence of such things as whole-systems collapse outcomes.

How important is this? It is not an exact analogy, of course, but think of the moist tropical forests and
the Recent
microscopic Those
phytoplankton in the surface layers of the sea
U.N. two famous
functioning WWof2 the
as the “lungs J-curve
because they provide us (each day) with most of the oxygensionsthat weunderscored
breathe. If we a
were to save 10%
decided tendency to
of a person’sand
tissues and destroy the remaining 90%, could we reasonably expect the person to
flatten and obliterate everything around
fertility projections
even survive, much less to continue to function normally?
themselves in every direction – (but they
would carry us to Why then, should we suppose that Earth’s
were natural systems
at least relatively localized events).
11, 12, 13, 14, 15, and environmental machinery are invulnerable?
or 16.6 billion by
Is saving one lung and one kidney enough? One lung would amount to 50% and one kidney is 50%.
thatclose of tothis
sufficient maintain even a suboptimal level of physiological function? Or does a 50% loss
system (or even a 3% loss of each system) constituteHumankind’s
of eachcentury. worldwide J-curve
a new and highly-precarious condi- today is a
tion? Is it sufficient if we save some of the endocrine glands? If a person loses
global-scale eventonethat
lung is
one in the
kidney and half of their endocrine glands, what happens to their overall prognosis? It would appear
middle of the ONLY planetary life-support
that we need to save at least fifty percent of Earth’s natural and biospheric systems –
and to the extent that the above analogies hold that fifty so far
percent may known
not be to exist anywhere
in the universe.
Thus, humanity’s currently-massive population size and growth, eradications, societal wastes, and
population momentum confront Earth’s planetary life-support machinery (its carrying capacity for a
modern industrialized humanity) with a crisis that is unfolding right now at this very moment and in
THIS decade, in the lifetimes of sons, daughters, or grandchildren, and of young people living today

– and their generation has a right to know the demographic, carrying capacity, and population-
environment data and implications set forth in this and related PowerPoints and PDFs.
So far, then, we have envisioned examples such as bridges, aircraft, and elevators that have carrying
capacities which are finite limits to the sheer numbers, impacts, weight, damage, wastes, destruction,
A and/or sheer eradications that such entities can safely accommodate without systems failures and/or
whole-system calamities (such as an elevator with a capacity for 18 passengers as 38, 70, 788, or
3088 persons attempt to squeeze aboard as an invitation to systems-failures calamities for both the
functioning vehicle and its occupants).

Similarly, we envisioned an airplane able to safely accommodate 130 passengers as lines of 810 or
1678 or 2842 persons endlessly boarded one after another, underscoring why carrying capacity
warnings enunciated by scientists and engineers should not be ignored or taken lightly as human-
What happens when populations exceed
Carrying Capacity, Limits, Thresholds, and Tipping points?

In a classical real-world study of a “Climb-and-Collapse” population explosion V.B. Scheffer (1951)
documented the rise-and-fall (and nearly-annihilating 99%-plus die-off), of a reindeer herd on St.
Paul Island, Alaska between 1911 and 1950. The island had no wolves, predators, or major competi-
tors so that the reindeer population exhibited approximately 28 years of relatively unrestricted and
unfettered growth. As the graph below shows quite dramatically, however, the herd’s initial phase of
growth, which was exponential, was followed by a massive die-off or catastrophic collapse in which
more than 99% of the herd died by the close of the study in 1950…

Underscoring quite powerfully that carrying capacities, J-curves, real-world limits, and
massive die-offs may constitute and pose profound existential implications for our own species.

The Rise and Fall of a
Reindeer Herd
on St. Paul Island, Alaska

The 40 square-mile island had no wolves, predators, or major competitors for the reindeer in the
study. (Notice the rising trajectory of the population J-curve produced as the herd’s numbers grew
over the years.) Secondly, however, notice the COLLAPSE underscored by the last data point in the
graph which reflects a nearly-annihilating 99%-plus die-off by the close of the study.)
What had happened? In the absence of the usual predators and competitors that normally held
their numbers in check, the reindeer population rocketed upward beyond the ecosystem’s ability
to sustain them.
Thirdly, it is important, provocative, and disquieting to note that at their peak numbers (1939)
the combined bodies of the entire herd physically-occupied roughly 22/1000ths of 1%2 of the total
island area that appeared to remain seemingly available to them. At this point (their peak) their
population collapse began, so that their catastrophic die-off and collapse both began and took
place even as “vast amounts of open-space” (99.998% unoccupied) appeared to remain seeming-
ly available. (No data were able to be collected during WW II.)

Graph is after Scheffer, V.B. 1951. The rise and fall of a reindeer herd. Scientific Monthly 73: 356-362.

This and similar patterns are also outlined elsewhere in our open-courseware
collections - What Every Citizen Should Know About Our Planet.
It is important to appreciate that when the reindeer
population in the above study peaked in numbers
and exceeded the carrying capacity of their envir-
onment (culminating in a calamitous and nearly-an-
nihilating 99%-plus die-off and mortalities), their
peak numbers had already been reached when the
combined bodies of all the reindeer making up the
entire herd, taken together, physically-
occupied roughly 2 / 1000ths of 1%
of ‘vast-open-space island surroundings that visu-
ally-appeared to remain seemingly-available.

In other words, in this classical real-world example,
the population involved had already reached and
exceeded its environment’s carrying capacity at a
time when its surroundings appeared to remain… ……



(To envision 2 / 1000ths of 1% in more familiar terms,
imagine a small circle about twice the diameter of a
baseball on an otherwise empty basketball court.)

(THEY had ALREADY ‘waited-too-long’ even when
surrounded by ‘vast-open-space’ conditions.)

The above exceptionally-powerful example underscores THREE
core understandings concerning our carrying capacities topic

(1) Humankind’s apparently-instinctive suppositions that a population (including our own), must
somehow be “safe” from overpopulation catastrophes and/or environmental limits as long as
seemingly “vast amounts of open-space” appear to remain in their sur-roundings is a strikingly-
dangerous misperception.

For the die-off documented in Scheffer’s study both began and proceeded even as seemingly -
“VAST-amounts-of-open-space” appeared to remain seemingly-available.

And in a follow-up study similar to Scheffer’s, a second small reindeer population was introduced to
another Alaskan island (St. Matthew Island) under much the same conditions. Strikingly, the data
and outcomes involving this second herd (reported by D.R. Klein, 1968), were similar – and equally
shocking, for this second herd also grew exponentially, until it too underwent a 99%-plus die-off -
with an even more precipitous collapse over the course of a single year.

(2) The presence and activities of competitors, predators, and pathogens in an environment, individ-
ually or collectively, serve as classical regulatory or limiting factors that act to hold a population’s
numbers in check.

And we will shortly see classical examples of population explosions that result when such predators,
pathogens, and/or competitors (sometimes referred to as “keystone” species) are removed from a
(Population explosions resulting from such removals are known as ECOLOGICAL RELEASE)
(3) Almost identical 99.998% unoccu-
pied images (2/1000ths of 1% occupied as
shown left) which already powerfully
depict “too-late” or “waited too long”
conditions in classical mammalian pop-
ulation climb-and-collapse outcomes

also closely characterize catastrophic
outcomes seen in population explo-
sions of unicellular dinoflagellates in
marine environments that are known as
(e.g. - blooms or outbreaks
of Karenia brevis)

We address these red-tide population-environment catastrophes several paragraphs hence. … ………

So now we have seen THREE classical, separate, and quintessential real-world examples of calami-
tous population-environment Climb-and-Collapse outcomes and “too-late” conditions in environ-
ments that remained roughly 99.998% unoccupied – and which visually appear to remain ALMOST

Examples of Limits, Thresholds, and Limiting factors
Given humankind’s growing and already-enormous.worldwide population (together with our ever-
widening consumption, wastes, destruction, impacts, and eradications) one of the most important
questions in the history of our species is the prospect of breaching real-world environmental and
biospheric limits, thresholds, and tipping points. Thousands of examples of such thresholds, limits,
and tipping points (both known and unknown) exist in real-world natural and biospheric systems.

Consider, for instance, two quick examples of thresholds in natural systems: (a) One instance in a
biological system can be seen in human blood which has buffers that maintain its pH at a mildly
alkaline 7.4 level. Seemingly small transgressions, however, beyond pH 7.3 (lower limit) and 7.5
(upper limit) result in acidosis or alkalosis, both of which are potentially fatal. (b) As a second
example, consider a pan of hot water at 211 degrees F (99 oC) that persists in its liquid state in a
physical system under conditions of standard pressure. If one OVERSHOOTS that threshold, how-
ever, by just one added degree, the entire system abruptly transforms into a gaseous system of
boiling steam (after Kluger, 2006).
Scientists recognize a variety of limiting factors that play a role in regulating the ultimate size of a
population in a given environment. Below we will enunciate six or seven as examples.
Operating on instinct alone most of us can instantly identify finite supplies of critical
resources such as food and water as factors that can limit the size of a population.

But just because we instinctively think of such factors first, does not mean that they are the first or
only factors that determine a system’s carrying capacity, for in fact, OTHER less-intuitive limiting
factors exist that can induce disaster long before food and water and similar “running-out-of”
suppositions become decisive.
Among these many other important limiting factors, we have mentioned several already. For exam-
ple, the reindeer herds underwent population explosions when the absence of wolves, bears, and
competing species allowed their numbers to grow far beyond the sustainable carrying capacities of
their environments.
It is also important to note as well that in the absence of pressures from competitors and bears and wolves,
the two herds did not regulate their own numbers. Instead, they continued to reproduce at maximum and
unsustainable rates until they OVERSHOT the carrying capacity of their environments - at which time their
unsustainable bills came due and their devastating 99%-plus die-offs ensued.

When population explosions occur following removal of one or more key predators or competitors
from a system, the phenomenon is known as ECOLOGICAL RELEASE. Thus, when ranchers removed
coyotes from some areas of the American west, for example, the removals were followed by unexpec-
ted population explosions of jackrabbits. Why? Because the coyote populations were acting as a
KEYSTONE SPECIES that helped keep jackrabbit numbers in check.

Other examples exist of keystone species, competitors, predators, and pathogens that can play impor-
tant roles in regulating the size of a given population. Along the California coast, for example, sea
otters prey upon (and thereby regulate), sea urchin populations that would otherwise damage or deci-
mate the state’s famous offshore kelp beds. In the 1970s and 1980s, for instance, research papers
described an ecological release that began when a hunting-bounty on sea otters caused their numbers
to plummet (e.g., Estes and Palmisano, 1974, and Duggins, 1980).

Because sea otters feed on sea urchins (small spiny sea animals that look like pin-cushions and graze
upon kelp), the reduction in the number of sea otters acted as an ecological release, allowing sea ur-
chin numbers to skyrocket so that suddenly their exploding numbers threatened to obliterate the off-
shore kelp beds. Another classical example described the role of a sea star, Pisaster, in regulating
the abundance of various prey species in rocky intertidal marine habitats (Paine, 1966; 1969).

Another pressure that can regulate population size is competition. For instance, as populations be-
come ever-larger and increasingly crowded, increasing competition occurs between individuals with-
in a species and between multiple species so that the presence of competitors acts as still another
regulatory mechanism. Among birds, for example, there may be competition for a limited number of
nesting sites, while populations of barnacles, sponges, and marine tunicates may compete among
themselves and with each other for limited attachment sites on a pier-piling or offshore rocks.

As still another example, ever-larger and densely-crowded populations can constitute an invitation to
sanitation problems and an increased likelihood of transmission of epidemic disease (e.g. Odum,
1959). In addition, crowding can also induce internal limiting factors such as hormonal, adrenal, and
physiological stresses. Some studies of crowded populations, for example, have reported increases in
aggression and infant mortality, as well as hormonal and physiological stress responses, while other
early studies found that crowded rabbit populations exhibit a shock disease...with enlarged adrenals,
a breakdown in the adreno-pituitary system, and a wholesale die-off" (e.g., Christian, 1950, 1956;
Christian and Davis, 1964; and Calhoun, 1962).

Still another Limiting Factor -
A Limited Capacity to Accept Wastes
It is intuitively obvious to most of us that the carrying capacity of a particular environment can be
limited by the amount of food and other resources that a population requires, or by other factors such
as those we have discussed above. However, carrying capacities can also be limited by the ability of
an environment to accept and process the WASTES of a given population. For example, in a popula-
tion of yeast cells, Gause (1932) cited the effects of alcohol on new cells as the limiting factor, while,
as Stiling noted in 2002, "It is interesting that in this situation population growth was limited by
pollution of the environment by alcohol [and] not by limiting resources” prompting him to add that
many people “think the same will be true of humans" (ibid).

As a particularly powerful and classical
real-world model, the famous outbreaks
of dinoflagellate RED-TIDE in marine
environments constitute one of nature’s
quintessential examples of population
explosions that can induce calamity by
their release of wastes into their surround-
ings (including, in this case, massive fish
kills) - a characteristic that would seem
worth noting, perhaps, since our own spe-
cies appears to exhibit an extraordinari-
ly-similar pattern of behavior.

And such dinoflagellate populations man-
age to inflict their classical and quintes-
sential population-environment disasters
even as their numbers physically-occupy
LESS THAN 2/1000ths of 1% of seemingly
’vast-open-space’ conditions that remain
99.998% unoccupied - and which visual-
ly-appear to remain

Unfortunately, however, our own species
does not confine itself to releasing only
our biological, cellular, and metabolic
wastes into our surroundings.

Instead, we SUPPLEMENT our biological and cellular wastes, in a way that is utterly unprecedented
in the history of life on Earth, with BILLIONS of tons of societal and industrial wastes, so that we
appear to be embarked upon a trajectory that is NOT ONLY WORSE than that of red-tide dinoflagel-
lates, but is multiple orders of magnitude worse at that – and unlike red-tides whose outbreaks are
at least temporary and at least localized, our own outbreak is an ongoing, non-stop, ever-widening,
and ever-accumulating global phenomenon that is going off in the middle of the only planetary
life-support machinery so far known to exist anywhere in the universe.
Thus, on an increasingly-crowded fifty-passenger bus, that restroom at the back of the bus is easy to
overlook until even minor crowding begins to take place. Even though the transmission, axles,
seating, brakes, and engine might be stressed by ninety passengers, for example, those systems might
manage to struggle onward under the load. That restroom, however, might not respond so well.
Assuming a long trip, one can imagine overwhelming its capacity by the presence of as few as sixty
or seventy passengers.
Upon reflection, we can see that this scenario might apply to Earth, for if we assess the collective
impacts that we have right now, with a population in excess of 7.4 billion, many of the stresses we
see are the result of our societal and industrial wastes. Food and other resource shortages may be out
there on the horizon as looming problems, but Earth's ability to accept, recycle, cleanse, and dissipate
our avalanches of societal and industrial wastes (such as CO2) appears to be stressed already.
In their text BIOLOGY (1999), Campbell, Reece, and Mitchell expressed a similar caution: "It is...
possible that our population will eventually be limited by the capacity of the environment to absorb
the wastes and other insults imposed by humans." Joel Cohen has made a similar appraisal: "Today's
rapid relative and absolute increase in population stretches the productive, absorptive, and recuper-
ative capacities of the earth" (1995). Still others, such as Raven and Johnson (1999), remind us that
"the world ecosystem is already under considerable stress."
Thus, if we rely on instinct alone and focus our attention exclusively on food supplies (which too
many previous studies have done) (e.g., Revelle, 1976), we may distract our attention from other
critically important aspects of our problem. In his book OVERSHOOT, William Catton wrote that:
"...the capacity of the world's oceans, continents, and atmosphere to absorb the substances [Homo
sapiens] must put somewhere in the process of living is limited. Even as a waste [pollution] disposal
site, the world is finite" (1982).

Our point is this: Although it is quite appropriate to consider finite supplies of food, water, and critical
resources as factors that limit a species to some ultimate population size, we are guilty of error if we
allow such topics to be our only focus of our concern. On a passenger bus, for example, it is easy to
recognize a finite supply of available seating as a limiting factor that affects the vehicle's ultimate
capacity. But if we were to actually crowd additional passengers onto such a bus, while the seating
might become more crowded and increasingly uncomfortable, the vehicle might still lumber forward,
even with a load of ninety or more.

But ever-increasing numbers of passengers, together with non-stop, ever-widening, ever-growing,
and ever-accumulating wastes, impacts, and eradications suggest that somewhere during the 30-40-
50-60-70-80-or-90%eeradications that present policies envision and may permit, one or more cata-
strophic thresholds or tipping points with global repercussions will almost certainly be crossed.

Thus, despite our seemingly-instinctive suppositions, an environment’s sheer quantities of “open-
space” rarely constitute biology’s central limiting factors because other limiting factors come into
play much sooner. As a result, even though our “vast-open-space” suppositions seem to constitute a
natural “intuition,” in reality they constitute an exceedingly-dangerous misperception that acts to
blind us to the degree, extent, and proximity of the marching calamity that is underway.

A neglected limiting factor: Levels of sheer ERADICATION
of physical, environmental, and biospheric systems
As populations become larger and/or more crowded, they commonly inflict damaging changes to
their physical and environmental surroundings. Each ecosystem has an ability to maintain itself and
to resist or heal physical damage, but their non-negotiable capacities for self-maintenance, self-per-
petuation, and self-repair have limits. For example, when lakes and ponds undergo eutrophication,
they demonstrate deadly changes that are inflicted by the populations that they host.
(Eutrophic water bodies exhibit catastrophic oxygen depletion that
commonly results from animal wastes, fertilizer run-offs, etc.)

If plants and other autotrophs living in a lake or pond are nourished with abundant nutrients (e.g.
from animal wastes or fertilizers) they respond with a burst of exuberant growth. The problem is,
dissolved oxygen supplies in the water are limited. Each night at dusk, even though photosynthetic
production of oxygen ceases, the crowded and over-abundant populations living in the pond continue
consuming the limited supply of O2 all night long.
In this case, heterotrophic microbes utilize the available “O2 faster than it can be replenished,” re-
sulting in “complete depletion of O2" (Prescott, 1999). When this happens, the pond or lake becomes
anoxic (without oxygen), thereby suffocating essentially all aerobic populations in the pond, and a
similar process produces anoxic “dead zones” in ocean habitats. In these events, then, we see calami-
tous changes that result from too-many organisms drawing on a limited resource.*

Notice that the problem here is not due to limited supplies of food and nutrients. Instead, in this instance,
extra nutrients actually serve to fuel the growth that lead to depletion of the O2 that ends in collapse.

Damage to the physical environment can also be inflicted by vertebrate animals like ourselves. We
see, for example, that when elephants are confined to small areas, they destroy the very trees and
vegetation needed for sustenance. In the same way, when predator populations were reduced near the
Grand Canyon in the early 1900s, local deer populations exploded, and began to consume "...every
leaf of available vegetation" (Odum, 1959). Nearly everywhere we look and nearly everywhere we
travel, we see evidence that our own species is inflicting physical and chemical damage to Earth's
ecosystems and to our biospheric, climatic, and biological environments.

N “Vast-open-space” instincts as erroneous suppositions and
extraordinarily-dangerous misperceptions n
As noted earlier, when discussing or contemplating population limits, we are too-easily and too often
tempted to imagine that a growing population may eventually "run out of space." The data sets that
we have already offered, however, argue quite powerfully that such seemingly-instinctive supposition
can be extraordinarily dangerous. The term "space," for example, technically refers to a mathematical
area or volume, so that the resulting problem then, is this: The term carrying capacity does not refer
to the sheer number of individuals whose bodies can physically-squeeze into a given area or volume.

First, among mammals, the two real-world data sets mentioned on pages 6-7 involved reindeer herds
on Alaskan islands (Scheffer, 1951; Klein, 1968) which each underwent a boom-and-bust population
explosion that concluded, in each case, with a catastrophic 99%-plus die-off. It is particularly worth
noting that in each case the die-off both began and (proceeded to near annihilation) in seemingly “vast
open-space conditions” when the combined bodies of all the individuals in each herd physically-
occupied roughly 2/1000thsnof 1% of the island area that visually-appeared to remain theoretically-
available to them.

This should cause us to reevaluate our own extraordinarily-dangerous and (seemingly-instinctive)
suppositions that center on ‘vast-amounts of open-space,” for in this article alone we have seen
THREE, separate independent, classical, and quintessential examples of real-world population-
environment calamities in surroundings that visually appear to remain ALMOST ENTIRELY EMPTY -
(except that our own outbreak is not a localized event, but instead constitutes a planet-wide

Thus, the three studies that we have outlined in this article should be both worrying and disquieting
for, as both of our classical reindeer climb-and-collapse outcomes show, (including their catastrophic
99%plus die-offs) together with the even worse dinoflagellate red-tides in marine systems, real-world
population explosions both can (and do) transgress “too-late” / ‘they-waited-too-long” thresholds
in environments that remain 99.998% unoccupied.
In other words, as underscored by the tiny white dot in the above image, the 99%-plus die-offs that
we cite both began (and proceeded to near-annihilation) in surroundings that remained 99.998%
unoccupied and which visually-appeared to remain ALMOST ENTIRELY EMPTY.

Next then, let us for imagine, as a thought-experiment, that the population represented by the tiny
white dot in the illustration happens to be a sentient species and that, at the point in time denoted by
the tiny white dot, some members of its scientific community begin to issue warnings concerning
carrying capacity, overpopulation, overshoot, and population limits, together with wastes and
eradications in finite systems.
First, what is the likelihood that many members of the population will believe the assessments when
instinct seems to invite them to imagine that any population calamity must surely not be near when
such vast “amounts of open-space” appear to remain theoretically available in their surroundings?

In fact, however, as ALL THREE classical, separate, independent, and quintessential real-world climb-
and-collapse calamities and die-offs outlined in this article show quite powerfully, if the scholars and
leaders of such sentient populations were to WAIT until the conditions depicted in the image appear,
they will have already waited TOO LONG for the image denotes, in a proportionally-correct way for
all three examples, the moments in time when the populations have peaked and the onsets of collapse
and die-offs have already begun.

Thus the image depicts, in a proportionally-correct way, the roughly 2/1000ths of 1% climb-and-
collapse die-offs (and/or even worse mass mortality outcomes) that we have seen in routine outbreaks
of dinoflagellate red-tides in marine systems (which can include, for instance, fish-kills in the millions
of tons),1 as well as two separate, independent, and quintessential real-world climb-and-collapse
population disasters seen in two classical studies of real-world reindeer herds on Alaskan islands in
the Bering Sea.2, 3 (For a synopsis from these reports, along with the supporting mathematics for the
2/1000ths of 1% figures we cite, see reference “4” below.)

1 - Bushaw-Newton, K.L. and Sellner, K.G. 1999. Harmful Algal Blooms IN: NOAA’s State of
the Coast Report, Silver Spring, Md. NOAA.
2 - Scheffer, V.B., 1951. The rise and fall of a reindeer herd. Scientific Monthly 73: 356-362
3 – Klein, D.R., 1968. The Introduction, Increase, and Crash of Reindeer on St.
Matthew Island. Journal of Wildlife Management 32: 350-367.
4 - “Too-late” population conditions in environments that are 99.998% unoccupied: Three
classical examples of calamitous population-environment thresholds in realworld systems.
PDF, The Wecskaop Project PDF and Biospherics Literacy 101

Summary: “The Open-space” Delusion

We thus see that relying upon an unjustified “open-space” intuition as a criterion upon which to judge
Earth’s planetary carrying capacity for an industrialized humanity constitutes an extraordinarily
dangerous misperception. Beyond the data already cited, for instance, and the points already made,
imagine a national park in Africa and its carrying capacity for lions. Although the enormous measured
areas of a large reserve might allow us to physically squeeze hundreds of thousands or even millions
of lions into such a park, to sustain even small numbers of lions, first there must be vast game herds
with populations large enough to allow a harvestable surplus of zebra and wildebeest and similar
grazers. .......

Secondly, these vast game herds, in turn, require still greater expanses of grasslands to sustain their
grazing and seasonal migrations, together with adequate supplies of water. As a result, hundreds of
square kilometers of "open-space" are required to support even a small population of lions. Thus, to
erroneously imagine that millions of lions might occupy a reserve simply because its mathematical
dimensions could physically accommodate their bodies constitutes a gross misrepresentation of
ecological, biological, and biospheric reality.

It is clear, of course, that attachment sites for marine invertebrates such as sponges and bryozoans
might, in one sense, be considered "space-limited" resources. And, to establish nature reserves for
conservation purposes, expansive quantities of "space" are essential if viable populations are to
persist. Soule, for instance, observes that even the largest nature reserves and national parks today
"...are usually too small to contain viable populations of large carnivores" (Soule, 1985; emphasis

Consequently, the sheer physical dimensions (area or volume) of available space, while necessary,
incorporates other more-immediate limiting factors that operate and exert their influences within that
space sooner. We have already seen, for example, not just intuitively-obvious limiting factors such
as supplies of food and water and resources, but also predation, disease, environmental damage,
territorial disputes, waste accumulation, aggression, and competition between and within species, as
well as cases of hormonal, physiological, and/or behavioral stress. .
Hence, the sheer quantity of seemingly-available “space” is seldom biology’s central limiting factor,
which means that although the apparently “vast open spaces” of the American west or the Australian
outback or the Mongolian steppes collectively contribute to biospheric equilibria, they do not connote
“space” for billions and billions more humans. A growing yeast population, for instance, can poison
its grape juice environment with ethanol even when the combined yeast cells themselves physically-
occupy a volumetrically-insignificant portion of the bottle or vat in which they reside.

And as we have already seen in this article, populations of dinoflagellate cells routinely poison
hundreds of square kilometers of the sea even as the combined cells themselves physically-occupy
insignificant portions of the “space” in which they live.

Likewise, the occupants of a eutrophic (over-fertilized) water body can induce lake-wide ANOXIC
conditions (a lethal depletion of dissolved oxygen) even though the actual volume that is physically-
occupied by their bodies and cells constitutes an insignificant proportion of the total volume

(See Biospherics Literacy 101 "Open-space” PowerPoints and PDFs for further
elaboration on these “too late” topics.)




Shoulder to Shoulder? And “too late” conditions
One occasionally encounters blogs or talk show discussions in which a little mathematics is used to
suggest that "all the people on our planet could stand shoulder to shoulder in an area the size of
Minnesota." While such statements may initially sound persuasive, notice that they are actually
founded upon exactly the same fallacious “available open space” ideas that we have just been
discussing. Upon reflection, however, and as many of our PowerPoints and PDFs also show, such
statements omit enough key considerations that they render themselves invalid.

To show the fallacious nature of such comments, for instance, we might simply offer a modified
version as follows: Suppose someone suggests that, mathematically speaking, we could physically
squeeze all of Earth's wildlife populations shoulder to shoulder into a geographic area "X" that is, for
argument's sake, the size of Minnesota.

Imagine, then, squeezing every chimpanzee, elephant, buffalo, bird, mountain lion, squirrel, giraffe,
orangutan, musk oxen, harbor seal, tarantula, manatee, cow, komodo dragon, tiger, whale, butterfly,
parakeet, boa constrictor, ostrich, kangaroo, marlin, sailfish, sea urchin, jellyfish, and rhinoceros
shoulder to shoulder into an area the size of Minnesota. Even if this could somehow be done in a
grotesquely physical sense, it would be ridiculous to imagine it to have any relationship whatsoever
with real-world systems.
First of all, such a scenario leaves no room for the woodlands and forests, or the waters, rivers,
streams, grains, food, expansive grasslands, intertidal zones, and specialized habitat niches needed to
support viable, self-sustaining, interacting, and self-perpetuating populations of such organisms.
Secondly, the scenario shows a disingenuous or utterly uneducated view by those offering the suppo-
sition in that it omits any consideration or contemplation whatsoever of the waste products, environ-
mental needs, demands, interactions, damage, destruction, and eradications that would accompany
such an aggregation. And thirdly, the ensuing chaos and carnage resulting from movement, elim-
ination of wastes, competition, aggression, predator-prey interactions, food and resource consump-
tion, and habitat eradication would be unimaginable.

In the same way, assertions that imagine crowding all of humanity shoulder to shoulder into some
imagined geographic area "Z" are just as fallacious. Why? Because they ask us to mistakenly presume
that the physical "amount of space" constitutes the principle limiting factor affecting our species.

To achieve a more realistic appraisal of a carrying capacity, it would be more appropriate to ask how
many people can live in Minnesota (or on our planet or any other locale) on a long-term basis (many
generations) if they must rely solely on the resources and waste-cleansing capacity of that environ-
ment alone.

The Global Dashboard
A passenger bus, airplane, or space vehicle has warning lamps on its dashboard that light up to
indicate trouble. On Earth today, we already see a disconcerting number of warning lights beginning
to light up the global dashboard. Examples of these include accelerating emissions of greenhouse
gases, disappearing wilderness, massive deforestation in the tropics, melting permafrost, acid precipi-
tation, collapsing fisheries, falling water tables, desertification, disappearing polar ice, ozone deple-
tion, expanding dead zones in the seas, and an imminent mass extinction that may become the greatest
biological disaster since the disappearance of the dinosaurs.
(e.g., IPCC, 2007; Begley, 2007, 2008; Ellis, 2003; Myers, 2007; Kerr,
2006; G.C.A., 2008; Buncombe, 2009; Pimm, 2001; and Johnson, 2007).

Our planet already began to show such signs of stress by 1987 with a world population of five billion,
and these many signs of stress have grown even greater with the arrivals of our sixth billion in 1999
and our seventh billion in 2011 (and now we add approximately seven million more each and every
month) (after PRB, 2012). Even if our population were to magically stabilize later today and were to
not grow at all thereafter, what will happen when that portion of humanity who are not yet indus-
trialized attempt to emulate developed and industrialized standards of living?

And what will happen as we add still more impacts, eradications, damage, and wastes as we
add billions numbers 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, and/or 16.6 over the next eight decades?

How long can Earth's biological, climatic, waste-cleansing, and environmental machinery survive
the growing, accumulating, and ever-widening impacts of our explosively-growing numbers?

We don't know the exact answers to these questions yet,
but children now living are likely to find out.

Other Passengers
We are not alone on our global vehicle, for other species occupy much of the available seating. Today,
however, with billions of additional human passengers endlessly boarding, these other species are
being displaced at an unrelenting and accelerating rate. By mid-century, for example, "...large
species, and particularly large predators, will be by and large extremely scarce and some will have
disappeared entirely" (Jenkins, 2003). Continuing, Jenkins adds: "almost all wild lands in the tropics
will be impoverished in numbers and diversity of larger animal species" and concludes that
continuing loss of forests in Indonesia, Madagascar, and the Philippines will "have a particularly high
impact on biodiversity" (ibid). Likewise, Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Friedman cites a
Conservation International estimate that a “forest area the size of three hundred soccer fields is cut
down in Indonesia every hour” (Friedman, 2008).

In 2007, for instance, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) issued a biodiversity
assessment (Last Stand of the Orangutan) including assessments of deforestation in Indonesia such
as: “Given the rate of deforestation in the past five years…” [referring to 2002-2007], “and recent
widespread investment in oil palm plantations and biodiesel refineries… new estimates suggest that
98% of the forest may be destroyed by 2022, the lowland forest much sooner.”

Since the “late 1990s,” they say, “the rate of deforestation
and logging has increased,” and “the rate and extent of
illegal logging, may, if unchallenged, endanger the entire
concept of protected areas worldwide.” (Nellemann, et al.

Note that the above appraisals testify to two sobering and quite disturbing
trends: (a) rather than being resolved, Indonesia’s deforestation problems are
unfolding even more quickly than previously anticipated, and (b) even national
parks are not working.

On its page nine, the UNEP report offered still another dis-
quieting assessment: “As a result of logging, infrastructure
development, internal migration, and plantation develop-
ment, Sumatra’s forest area was reduced by 61% between
1985 and 1997 (ibid; see also Bennett, E., et al., 1999).

Notice that at a reduction rate of 61%iin twelve years, if actual hectares-removals remain
unaddressed and are simply repeated, the loss is so rapid as to be essentially unstoppable.

One lesson here is that the informational lag-time alone makes it virtually impossible for even politi-
cians and citizens who are honest and concerned (and powerful enough financially and politically)
to act or intervene in time to halt or prevent the obliteration.

And it turns out that PALM OIL plays a leading role in the above deforestation, for, as the report ob-
serves, palm oil is “…already found in one in ten supermarket products, including margarine, baked
goods, sweets, detergents, and lipstick” [not to mention its role as “the most productive source of
diesel fuel”] (emphasis added).
(Nellemann, et al., 2007; and see also Bennett, E., et al., 1999).

Thus, if our own species suffers because of our own actions or inactions (or our use of diesel fuel,
margarine, and lipstick), that suffering will be self-inflicted. But what about all the other passengers
aboard our global bus?
Do other species have a right to exist?
Is it our right to drive them to extinction?
Or does there exist a moral imperative to preserve our
biotic inheritance and the fabric of life on Earth? .....

At the edge of a forest, we see vines that compete with trees for sunlight. In the backyards of our
homes, we see squirrels that compete with birds for birdseeds. In Africa, hyenas compete with lions
for a carcass. And similar instances of competition exist throughout the natural world. Today,
however, humans compete with wildlife for wilderness. And in such a competition, wildlife and wil-
derness stand no chance.

Columbia's Jeffrey Sachs, for example, has likened (2008) today's industrialized fishing fleets to
“hunter-gatherers with machine guns," noting that “the natural prey is simply no match for the
incredible power and technology of modern fishing fleets, complete with fishnets that stretch for
miles and satellite-based tracking of open-sea schools of fish.”

Note here that ‘technology’ does NOT serve to solve the problem, but instead permits us
to make things worse more quickly, extensively, and efficiently than ever.

Robotic wood-chippers that can cut down and
wood-chip a 20 foot tree in 30-to-40 seconds

Today, a hungry, poor, and rapacious humanity – along with the economic engines of our wealthiest
societies – lays waste to the natural world at a rate unparalleled in human history. Which, if any,
species will survive the holocaust that is now underway? What portion of Earth's biota will we drive
to extinction in the years just ahead?

In closing
What happens when a population overshoots the carrying capacity of its environment? What evidence
do we see when such overshoot has occurred or is occurring? Might humanity be in an overshoot
mode already -– right now? (Yes we are and seriously and catastrophically so.)

What happens to other species when they overshoot the carrying capacity of their environments? To
what extent have our advances in medicine, life-extension, antibiotics, and public health, suppressed
the pathogenic microbes that once held our numbers in check from their role in regulating our
populations? (Did we mention research into life-extension?) Is our species currently undergoing a
population phenomenon known as ecological release? (Yes we are.) What price is to be paid if we
continue on our present course?
How far can we push natural systems before they break? How many people can the Earth support?
At what standard of living? How many should it support? Do other species have a right to exist or
should all of Earth's resources be used to support humans alone? Do future generations have any
rights to resources and raw materials? Or is it the right of generations now living to consume all such
materials entirely and leave the poisonous wastes for someone else to clean up later? Do future
generations have a right to inherit an intact planet with functioning ecosystems and the biodiversity
that we inherited when we arrived? Or is it the right of those of us now living (and a few powerful
and already-rich economic and corporate entities) to consume, pollute, and destroy to the maximum
extent possible?

If endless lines of additional passengers were to endlessly board an airplane, an elevator, a space
vehicle, or a passenger bus, how many such passengers could reasonably board without inducing
whole-systems failures? Clearly, at some point, at least one or more, if not all, critical systems would
fail. On a passenger bus, the engine would overheat, the tires would blow, the axles would break, the
transmission would fail, or the engine would blow a gasket. In all likelihood, the first system to be
affected by crowding would be the restroom at the back of the bus which would overflow as the
amount of waste generated by the passengers overwhelmed its capacity to accommodate those wastes.

No rational astronauts, of course, would ever dream of eradicating or damaging the systems of the
vehicle that sustains their lives in space, and the rest of us would never dream of inflicting such
damage upon our automobiles. Amazingly, however, we seem to suppose that we can systematically
destroy, eradicate and dismantle the only planetary life-support machinery so far known to exist
anywhere in the universe and to presume that it will nevertheless continue to function as it has always
done in the past.

Notice that the above has nothing to do with "running-out-of ” food or resources or anything else but
instead counsels the urgency of caution when it comes to the degree of sheer eradication, wastes,
and physical damage that we inflict upon the only planetary life-support systems so far known to
exist anywhere in the universe.

A continuation of today’s demographic tidal wave may constitute the
greatest single risk that our species has ever undertaken.

The above document is entirely free for non-commercial use by
scientists, students, and educators anywhere in the world..

Courtesy of The Wecskaop Project - Excerpted from
What Every Citizen Should Know About Our Planet .

Recommended and Freely-downloadable

Biospheric Literacy 101-Five PowerPoints / Five Days

Priority Population Collection for Academia and Policymakers

Copyright 2012. Biospheric Literacy
and Sustainability Science 101.

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Extracts and addenda from earlier versions of this document
A graph that traces our own population growth over the past ten millennia not only mimics the pattern seen in the climb-and-
collapse of the two reindeer herds, but notice that our own pattern of growth is both more pronounced and far more extreme than
that seen in the reindeer herds as they neared collapse.

Similarly, Sylvia Mader explains that today "two-thirds of the plant species, 90% of the nonhuman primates, 40% of birds of prey,
and 90% of the insects live in the tropics" (Mader, 1996). Continuing, she points out that "every year humans destroy an area of
forest equivalent to the size of Oklahoma. At this rate, these forests and the species they contain will disappear completely in just a
few more decades" (ibid).

We hear similar concerns expressed by Raven, Evert, and Eichhorn: "As many as 40,000 species of tropical plants may be in
danger of extinction in the wild within the next several decades" while "in temperate regions, about five percent of the native plant
species are in current danger of extinction" (Raven, et al., 1986).

Columbia's Jeffrey Sachs (2008) has likened today's industrialized fishing fleets to “hunter-gatherers with machine guns," noting that
“the natural prey is simply no match for the incredible power and technology of modern fishing fleets, complete with fishnets that
stretch for miles and satellite-based tracking of open-sea schools of fish.”

Note here that technology does not serve to solve the above problem, but instead
permits us to make things worse more quickly, extensively, and efficiently than ever.

By 1995, in his book HOW MANY PEOPLE CAN THE EARTH SUPPORT?, Joel Cohen noted that we have moved into "...a poorly charted
zone where limits...have been anticipated and may be encountered."

More recently we see too many economists who are worried about their worldwide population-growth Ponzi scheme being threatened
by recently slowing population growth in the world's richest and most technologically advanced countries, even as, on a worldwide
basis, humankind’s “…historically unprecedented population expansion in the poorest parts of the world continues largely unabated"
and "as a consequence, nearly all future global growth will be concentrated in the developing countries, where four-fifths of the
world's population lives" (Bongaarts, 2002).

The National Academy of Sciences should immediately empanel a team to evaluate such questions of overshoot, including the
possibility, likelihood, and consequences, in the event that our present overshoot of Earth's carrying capacity continues over the five,
six, and seven decades just ahead.

And, in our opinion, the members of the panel should be well-represented by natural scientists specializing in biology,
population biology, atmospheric science, zoology, botany, marine science, ecology, whole-systems-ecology, bio-
spherics, and chemistry –
As opposed to demographers, social scientists, political scientists,
statisticians, and economists who, by training and expertise know little or nothing about
the behaviors, intricacies, feedbacks, and thresholds of functioning natural systems.

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